“I started making these totems in November but this is my first time to set my art out here. I live here in an apartment in the back. I have always been a decent artist for drawing and painting but I didn’t know I could do this until I did it. I did tattoos in the day then started painting tikis and people bought them. They were easy to paint and relaxing. I carved one just to see if I could do it. I started with a pine tree and now my landlord wants to do a tiki forest. I am a musician and turned to music when I needed to vent but got to the point that music wasn’t working anymore so I turned to a paint brush.
I grew up in southern West Virginia. I worked underground in the coal mines for eight years. My dad was in for 34 years. He is broken down with black lung. I was in the Army and jumped out of airplanes. I moved to Louisiana a year after I got married and became an underwater welder. I came here seven years ago after addiction killed my wife and she was a victim of suicide. I always knew I would bury her. I didn’t know it would be that way. Our daughter was seven. My mother lives in Fairhope and I needed help. My daughter stays with my mom and I am still trying to find my place. My daughter is great, she is a straight-A student. She was diagnosed last year for thyroid cancer and had half of her thyroid removed. She bounced back, screw cancer, she had school work to do. She is my hero.
These totems have become my therapy. I start with a chainsaw for the basic shape, then a chisel and an angle grinder with sanding pads. It takes longer to paint them. Each one gets a little better but the chainsaw gets away from you sometimes. If I can picture it in my head, I can carve it better than I can draw it. I made one into a lamp and will make others into furniture. Every character on the totem pole represents me and my life. The beaver is my spirit animal. The bear represents courage and resiliency because I was in war. The deer represents the soft and tender side. I just wanted to do a thunderbird. They say find something you love to do and you will never walk a day in your life. I think it is better working for myself and being an artist is helping me manage my money better. I can now say I am an artist because I pay the bills with my art. That feels good to stay
My girlfriend broke up with me this week. She helped me paint some of these. I took her for granted doing this and spent all of my time doing this. I blew her off. I didn’t know I was in love with her until she walked out the door. I am heartbroken. It was love at first sight with my wife. Two weeks later we were married and were together for 11 years. After that I always had my guard up, scared to death of getting hurt again, and was slow to let me guard down. My girlfriend gave me a chainsaw and a brand new chainsaw and guitar for Valentine’s Day. The moment she walked out the door was a smack in the face and I needed it. She told me she loved me but I never told her that until after she left. I didn’t realize how much I loved her until she was gone. I am no longer scared to tell her I love her. I will tell the whole world and you can put that in my story.”
You can find James Cantley and his art at 14150 County Road 55 in Foley.